Making Room for Thomas
A Sermon on John 20:19-31
Ever since that Sunday night, Thomas has been stuck with a label, a negative label, an epithet: doubting Thomas. Don’t be a doubting Thomas. You don’t want to be like him.
This week I saw a cartoon that shows Thomas with his arms raised and his eyes wide open exclaiming, “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter ‘Denying Peter!’ Why should I be saddled with this title?”
Why indeed? Nobody in the story calls him that. Nobody in the scripture lesson scolds Thomas. Not the disciples. Not Jesus. No, not even Jesus.
Look closely. In this passage and in all the Easter stories, all the disciples had doubts and fears at one time or another. All were struggling. All needed help to recognize the living Christ. It’s not fair to criticize Thomas for wanting what the others had received on the previous Sunday night. None of them had recognized the risen Lord until he showed them his hands and side. That’s what it says in verse 20. He showed them, then they recognized him.
What’s more, in Luke’s version of the first Sunday evening encounter with the risen Christ, he INSISTS that they all look and that they all touch him. Their reaction is a messy mix of joy and disbelieving and wondering. In the Matthew 28, when the eleven see Jesus, they worship him, but some are still struggling with doubt even as they look and worship.
It’s not fair to make a negative example out of Thomas. I think that view of Thomas comes out of reading a negative tone into Jesus’ voice that’s not really there. Imagining that kind of tone, some artists’ paintings of this scene show Thomas in a very unflattering light. They make him look hard-headed. No, you sure don’t want to be like him!
One reason we read a negative tone into Jesus’ voice is that it is very difficult to translate the Greek text into English there. “Stop doubting” is not a good translation of the Greek. The Greek actually reads like this, “Don’t be apistos, but pistos.” Pistos is an adjective that means having faith or believing. Apistos means not having faith, disbelieving or unbelieving. A more accurate translation is, “Don’t be unbelieving but believing.” Jesus is inviting Thomas to move from not trusting towards trusting. The tone is gracious and inviting.
Jesus doesn’t say, “What’s wrong with you? Why didn’t you take the others’ word for it?” Jesus came, spoke the word of peace to them all, including Thomas, and invited Thomas to look and to touch, which, remember, is what he invites everybody to do in the story in Luke.
Jesus is not saying, “Stop doubting this minute, and don’t ever doubt again. Never, ever question again, and something’s wrong with you if you do.”
If that were the case, we would have to either ignore huge sections of scripture, many of Psalms, for example, where people are in pain and filled with struggle and questions and wondering where God is. We either have to ignore those scriptures, or else write all those voices in scripture off as doubting Thomas voices, too.
That mix of faith and unfaith, trust and lack of trust, belief and unbelief is often how it is for the people of God. The desperate, grieving father in the Gospel of Mark is a kindred spirit to Thomas when he cries out to Jesus, “I believe! Help my unbelief!” It’s not either or, either you’ve got your spiritual act together, or you don’t. It’s both and. It’s a continuum, it’s a spectrum between unfaith and faith, sometimes we’re closer to one end or the other. Jesus invites us towards faith, and he doesn’t scold when we struggle in the middle.
As I looked at a number of paintings of the scene between Jesus and Thomas, I saw several that do a better job of interpreting the story. They show Jesus with his arms out open, inviting. He looks warm and welcoming. They look warm and welcoming. And one artist even shows Jesus wrapping Thomas in his arms. Jesus’ wounded hands are resting on Thomas.
Jesus is gracious and reassuring to Thomas and his kindred, but sometimes Christians are not. They are less than gracious when they or someone else is having a struggle of the soul. You get a sense of this when people state, “We’re not supposed to question” or “I know we’re not supposed to question, but.” But…but…God, why? Where were you?
Somehow we’ve gotten the idea that faith means no doubts, no questions, no struggle. If you find your soul crying out, hush it. Stifle the struggle. Bury the pain. Keep your questions to yourself. And if you can’t, something’s wrong with you.
Lately I’ve been doing some more reading on why people drop out of church, and why some are hesitant to visit or become part of a family of faith in the first place. There’s especially a great deal of discussion now about why so many young people in their late teens and twenties drop out of church, but it’s a phenomenon that’s not limited to the young. Just yesterday I read a comment from a sixty-year old woman who has known the Lord her whole life, but she’s struggling now. She wrote, “I’m unable to share my confusion with others in the church without risking judgment about my spiritual health.” (http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/when-i-hear-you-speak.html) One thing I’m seeing over and over again is that many people have learned somewhere that it’s not okay to ask questions, and it’s not okay to even have doubts, let alone express them in the presence of other Christians.
One young man left the church for a while because his youth pastor literally threw the Bible at him because of the questions he was asking. He eventually found his way back into the body of Christ, and later, he and his wife, a Disciples of Christ pastor, worked together to plant a new church development, where they still serve. He has written a number of books for people like himself who are the spiritual sisters and brothers of Thomas.
Recently another young Christian writer named Rachel Held Evans published an article entitled, “Fifteen Reasons Why I Left the Church.” Here are some of them:
• I left the church because my questions were seen as liabilities.
• Sometimes I doubt, and the church can be the worst place to doubt.
• I left because it was assumed that everyone in the congregation should vote for a particular political party.
• I left because I felt like I was the only one troubled by stories of violence and [negative views of women] and genocide found in the Bible, and I was tired of people telling me not to worry about it because “God’s ways are higher than our ways.”
• I left because I had learned more from Oprah about addressing poverty and injustice than I had learned from 25 years of Sunday school.
• I left because there are days when I’m not sure I believe in God, and no one told me that “dark nights of the soul” can be part of the faith experience. (http://rachelheldevans.com/15-reasons-i-left-church)
Rachel is still looking for a home somewhere in the body of Christ. She is an honest pilgrim who has written many gracious and helpful things, and it makes me sad to read some of the comments people write in response, things like “You’re too picky. You’re lazy and selfish. You’re just a religious consumer.”
There’s a book out called You Lost Me: Why Young Christians Are Leaving the Church…and Rethinking Faith. One point it makes is that many young people haven’t felt safe to come just as they are, struggles and all.
When I read about the pain that some people have experienced because they have been labeled like Thomas and judged and criticized in the church, or who assume they would be, or are afraid they would be, I want to say, “Please come visit with us at Morton.” I want to know how to get the word out that we could offer them hospitality. That’s one of my prayers. How can we help them feel safe, just as they are? How can we do what Jesus did: open our arms in grace? Make a place for Thomas and all his kindred spirits. When we’ve felt Jesus’ welcome just as we are, we can welcome others, just as they are.
Are we ourselves feeling safe? Are there times when we feel we have to wear a mask around one another? I hope that’s not often, but no church is perfect. When we are tempted to kick ourselves, saying, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I a doubting Thomas?” We can stop. Just stop. And remember Jesus’ welcoming face. If we find ourselves tempted to tell someone else, “Don’t be a doubting Thomas!” we can catch ourselves and stop. Just stop. Just be quiet. Usually what the other person needs is just to be listened to and accepted. We don’t have to be able to supply some answer that will fix the problem and stop the pain. We just need to be the welcoming face of Jesus.
In Sunday School last week one class member spoke very eloquently about what it’s like when you struggle and question, and how comforting it is when you know that others love and accept you just as you are, and that they’re praying for you. They don’t want you to go away and hide. And then later, when you’re not struggling as much, and they are, you can help them. Some time or other, everyone travels through a long dark night. Thomas is everybody’s twin. Remember, he was called the twin? He is our twin.
Thomas saw that Jesus’ arms were open, that Jesus’ heart was open, and that he was welcomed, and he exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!”
Sometimes the people who struggle hardest end up being the most authentic evangelists. They are unable to pretend. They are unable to accept or give easy answers. They are able to open their hearts. Tradition says that Thomas took the gospel to Asia, where Christians there remember him with great affection.
Jesus’ word to Thomas and to all in that first small congregation was peace. Peace be with you, he said. Peace be with you, Thomas.
Friends, the peace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you, also. All of you, just as you are.